Gary Francis, a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, read about the death of Jeff Sauer in the weekend newspapers. Sauer, 73, a coach of two NCAA hockey champions at Wisconsin, died Friday after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Dr. Francis then sent along these thoughts in an e-mail:
“I did not really know Jeff Sauer, but I played against him in junior hockey in St. Paul as a 13-year-old. He played for the Shop Pond Gang, a tremendous team made up of kids in the Como-Rice Street area.
“When I first saw the great Jeff Sauer, I was amazed how big, strong and mature he was. He looked to me to be about 35 years old. He centered their first line, and could skate like the wind.
“I remember watching him warm up on the ice, and immediately recognized we were not going to be able to control him. The Shop Pond Gang had other great players, many destined to become what was the nucleus of a terrific Washington High School team.
“A few Shop Pond Gang kids went on to play for an excellent Murray High School team, and several went on to play for Cretin (Mal Scanlan, etc). Our Highland-Groveland team was good, but several of our key players (Scanlan, Rick Smoliak, Dick Haigh) were "recruited" to play for the Shop Pond Gang. I believe that a very young Jack Dale from Como St. Andrews also was on that great Shop Pond team.
“We lost to the Shop Pond Gang, not surprisingly. We also ended up playing against them at the old St. Paul Auditorium. I again got to see firsthand what a great player Jeff Sauer really was. He went on to propel Washington High School into the state tournament.
(Note: The Prexies lost to Duluth East in the 1960 championship game).
“I had never seen such talent in a 13- or 14-year old kid.
“Jeff's dad taught ‘gym’ at Central High in St. Paul, where I did my first year of high school. He was a quiet, very kind person.
“There's a lot of history in St. Paul amateur sports, as you well know. Everyone respected Jeff Sauer as a great coach, but in my eye, he was also a remarkable player.’’
I FIRST HEARD OF SHOP POND when starting in the St. Paul sports department in September 1968. Now, almost 50 years later and after getting the note from Dr. Francis, I decided to try to find out what it was and where the name came from.
Turns out, a booster group of adults took the name for a sports club they started in St. Paul’s “North End.’’ That’s a hunk of the city loosely bordered by Lexington and Como Avenues, and toward what’s now Interstate 35E.
I’m not certain of the neighborhood geometry, and sadly Don Boxmeyer, the magnificent St. Paul wordsmith and historian, died too young and can’t give me the exact borders for the North End.
Shop Pond fielded teams in hockey, baseball, speed skating and, presumably, a few more activities. The most-famous group was the bantam hockey team that played as the Shop Pond Gang.
Where did the name come from? I went to my best Rice Street/ Washington High source:
Jim Rantz -- pitching hero of 1960 College World Series won by the Gophers, Herb Brooks’ hockey roommate at the U of M, retired from a long career in the Twins front office, and as it turns out, a former Shop Pond hockey player.
“I think the name came from the railroad shops over by Como,’’ Rantz said. “There was a pond down below the shops where we skated. Oscar Johnson, one of the St. Paul guys who started the Ice Follies, with the Shipstad brothers -- it seemed like he was the No. 1 backer of the Shop Pond teams.
“All of us Rice Street kids wanted to make it through tryouts and play for Shop Pond. They would buy you sticks … and they gave you a jacket!
“AND, if we won the championship, each player would get a $25 savings certificate.
“What do you think? Maybe you better not put that in an article. The NCAA might rule me ineligible.''